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A Troubled Child Changed Her Life, Kindling a Labor of Love

June 03, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Six years ago, Marleen Marx met a troubled 18-month-old child named Mark, lost her heart and changed her life. At the time, Marx was making a modest living designing and manufacturing educational toys in her home and working very hard at single parenting her 11-year-old daughter, Angela.

Mark had been taken away from a severely neglectful family environment and put in a foster home. And another. And another. By the time Marleen met him, Mark had been moved 11 times in 14 months. "He was incredibly smart," says Marx today, "and intensely angry and totally out of control. And this anger was upsetting whole families."

Marx, who is both idealistic and stubborn, saw Mark as a child with enormous resources who had never been permitted to develop. He needed a sense of stability and self-worth. "I have a strong distaste for injustice," she says, "and what was happening to Mark was unjust. The system that was trying to help him was not malicious--just overworked. So I tried to take some pressure off."

She followed Mark for a year, relieving his foster parents when the pressure was building, mediating when his natural mother came for visits, giving love and time whenever and however they were needed. Result: Mark was stabilized and adopted and is growing up to be a useful citizen. And Marleen Marx got into a new line of work.

Well, partially. She still had to earn a living, and so she continued to work hard at her toy line, which she calls Busybodies. But her experience with Mark and subsequent research that told her there were dozens--even hundreds--of lost children like Mark in Orange County set her off on another course. If volunteers could be found who would be willing to do what she did with Mark, wouldn't it ease the burden on public agencies and foster parents and, most important, give the children a better shot at stability they had never known? She believed strongly that it would, and so she started an organization called Foster Care Ministries. Its intent was to find people willing to do what Marleen did with Mark.

There were some conspicuous successes. A young computer programmer named Bill in his mid-20s offered help, and Marleen introduced him to a 7-year-old we will call Mike (real names are not used unless the child has been adopted) with learning disabilities. Together they rode bikes, went to the beach and played football; Bill even took Mike along on some of his dates. He saw Mike twice a month for almost five years, making it possible for Mike to stabilize his life in one foster home. Last year, Bill was married, and Mike was his ring bearer. The flower girl was a foster child that Bill's new wife had befriended in the same way.

Assistance to foster parents sometimes took unexpected directions. One foster mother had an infant die in her home of medical complications for which she was in no way responsible. But she was desolate and full of remorse. So FCM bought her a plane ticket to go to her family home for Thanksgiving and get her head straight. Another sickly child, deeply loved, died in a foster home. The child's real parents had disappeared and the foster parents couldn't afford a proper funeral. So the child had to be buried with public funds--which meant a pauper's funeral with no flowers. This deeply distressed the grieving foster mother, so FCM came in and supplied flowers, a minister and caring people. "For a few hours," Marx recalls, "we created an extended family."

She also remembers vividly a troubled 3-year-old girl who had been moved six times in seven months. Her new foster mother was loving and well-intentioned, but she had four other children in her home and the load seemed intolerable. FCM helped her pay for day care twice a week to relieve the stress and stabilize both the home and the foster child who, now free of behavior problems, was soon adopted.

FCM worked well enough that Marleen Marx was named 1984 Volunteer of the Year by Orange County Social Services. But Marx is very tough on herself--and so is her assessment of those years. "I suppose I accomplished a lot," she says today, "but it's hard to see it now. I established a summer camp for abused kids and had two dozen volunteers, and we prevented several dozen kids from being moved by giving relief to foster parents. But in the midst of all this activity, I realized that what I was doing was pretty futile because there was no formal support organization. I just jumped into the middle of providing services. But I don't give up easily."

Not even when health problems get in the way--which they did when Marx arrived at that place in her thinking in 1985. She went to the hospital with cardiovascular problems that could have been congenital or simply caused by stress. It would take a while to find out. Which gave Marx time to think.

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